- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Labor wants to pursue additional charges against Oregon blueberry farmers that it accuses of “hot goods” labor law violations.

In 2012, the agency claimed that the two farms - Pan-American Berry Growers and B&G; Ditchen - paid harvesters less than the minimum wage, which rendered their blueberries unlawfully produced “hot goods” that couldn’t be shipped in interstate commerce.

To prevent their crop from rotting, the farms agreed to pay $220,000 in alleged back wages and penalties and waived their right to challenge the agency’s allegations in court.

However, earlier this year, the farmers convinced a federal judge to overturn those settlements because they had been signed under economic duress.

Because the deals were invalidated, the department’s litigation against the growers was effectively re-opened.

Now, the agency has asked a federal judge to allow it to add new charges to the original complaints and expand the time frame of the farms’ alleged wrongdoing.

Specifically, the agency wants to amend the complaints to claim that the farms unlawfully withheld wages and hired pickers “off the books” in 2010 and 2011, in addition to the alleged violations in 2012.

The original complaints accused the growers of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by paying substandard wages, but the department now wants to charge them under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act as well.

The agency claims the farms violated this statute by not properly recording the hours worked by each worker to ensure they were paid the proper wage rate, among other allegations.

Also, it wants to add new defendants to the case: Steve Erickson, the CEO of Pan American, and three labor contractors who worked for the farms.

The agency said it will also seek a permanent “hot goods” injunction preventing the movement of unlawfully produced crops in interstate commerce.

Tim Bernasek, attorney for the farms, said he is objecting to the motion to alter the complaints because it’s unclear how the new allegations pertaining to harvests in 2010 and 2011 fit into the case at hand and how an injunction would apply to those years.

“There was no investigation,” he said. “We don’t know of any findings related to activities on the farm during that period.”

Apart from asking to amend its complaint, the agency wants a federal judge to dismiss the growers’ counterclaims. The companies claim that shipping delays caused by the controversy in 2012 diminished fruit quality, resulting in $150,000 in lost revenue.

The agency also argues that, although the settlements were vacated, it can’t return $73,500 of the alleged back wages paid by the growers because the funds have already been disbursed to workers.

A hearing on the counterclaims and disbursed funds will be held in Eugene on Oct. 28.

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Information from: Capital Press, http://www.capitalpress.com/

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